The Inaugural Tongariro and Whakapapa Releases

Mike Birch describes the inaugural release on the Whakapapa and gives some background on doing the run.

The Inaugural Whakapapa Release

Graham Egarr wrote in 1981, Before the hydro scheme drew off water from this river, the Whakapapa was well known among canoeists as offering some of the most difficult and exciting white water in the country.

Times have changed - shorter, better boats and increased skills have seen paddlers taking on more challenging rivers. However, the Whakapapa remains a popular run with those paddlers who are close enough to the river and can drop everything and catch a rare flood trip. When it rains hard in the central North Island the local paddlers head for the Whakapapa, which Graham Charles' guidebook says is a hidden treasure. His hot tip for the river is, no kayaking CV is complete without this one.

Inaugural Whakapapa Release, July 2005

Album: Inaugural Whakapapa Release, July 2005

Phil McIntyre, Mason Slako and Jason Bishop enjoy the inaugural release down the Whakapapa.
(12 images)

Leading up to the first release on 9 July 2005, I checked the flows during the week before. It wasn't looking good - it hadn't rained for days and the flow was low. This lead to the announcement on the NZRCA site, Genesis report that there is no rain in the Whakapapa catchment at present. The current flow is 10cu, and the likelihood of a release on Saturday is remote, though a decision will be reserved until the last moment. Check on this site on Saturday for a prediction regarding Sunday. We had about eight Taupo-based paddlers keen for a mid-winter river run, but after this announcement, our numbers dropped to four on the day - Pete, Richard, Yak and me. Fortunately, it rained heavily on the Friday night and the river flowed at about 30 cumecs on the day of the release.

We packed lots of warm gear and headed for the river. It was as cold as expected (4°C at the put-in) but it could have been worse. At the put-in we met up with Alasdair from New Plymouth, who asked if he could join us because he hadn't managed to convince any other New Plymouth Kayak Club members to take the chance on the river's flow.

We got on the river at about 10:30 am (the first group to go, apart from a raft with three guides from Blue Mountain Lodge). I quickly realised two things: 1. I hadn't been paddling for three months 2. My boat was heavier than normal and slightly tail heavy

I was wishing I hadn't packed so much gear - extra clothing, split paddle, first aid kit, food and thermos. Within five minutes of getting on the river I had a wee wake up call with an unplanned surf in a hole. I rolled out of the hole and the icy cold water woke me up. I found my old river running skills slowly re-awakening and I fell into the familiar rhythm of picking lines through the bouldery rapids.

We came across a group of half a dozen blue ducks who stayed just ahead of us until the river widened and we were able to give them a wide enough berth to pass on the opposite bank. The blue ducks were the reason that this release was happening in mid-winter, rather than the spring, when the chances of natural flows above 16 cumecs would be higher. (Genesis Energy have provided data to show that the probability of flows above 16 cumecs is 31% June and 35% July compared to August 39% and September 41%.) DoC raised concerns with the timing of the recreational releases on the Whakapapa rivers in 2005 and the effect on blue duck nesting.

This river has a one of the highest densities of blue duck in the country with 19 birds located between the intake and Owhango in the summer of 2004/05. DOC has agreed to undertake research this summer (as part of the work for the Central North Island Blue Duck Trust) to assess if blue duck nests are at risk during the recreational releases (i.e. at a certain flow), and if so, what proportion of nests are at risk. In the meantime, Genesis Energy and NZRCA agreed to shift the Whakapapa releases to July this year. Once the study is completed this summer, then the timing will be reassessed.

Yak was the only one in a playboat and he didn't play much, so we made good time. We had lunch at about midday, just before the river takes a turn to the north. The bush-clad steep banks of the gorge gives a remote feel, and it's similar to the gorges on the Tongariro River, but the large Rimu and other podocarps are more reminiscent of lowland forest than Tongariro's beech forest.

There are a couple of notable rapids in this part of the river. One has a large drop that forms a large hole in mid river at high flows (above 40 or 50 cumecs). The second is on a tight right hand bend with a volcanic ledge that forms a near river wide ledge hole, which is skirted on the inside of the bend. The run finishes with a nice rapid at the take-out. If you have found the run challenging, then this rapid can be a bit daunting - especially after three or more hours on the river. We all paddled it no problem and then watched from the bridge as other groups of paddlers arrived. One paddler gave us some entertainment by falling over mid-rapid and taking a couple of attempts to roll.

As we chatted at the take-out we all agreed that it was well worth it and a shame that a few more other paddlers hadn't turned up. Hopefully more will in two weeks time.

Background information

The Whakapapa Intake forms the start of the "western diversion" of the Tongariro Power Development Scheme. A large tunnel, carries the water from the Whakapapa Intake to the man made Lake Otamangakau. On the way water is also collected from four smaller streams - Okupata, Taurewa, Tawhitikuri and Mangtepopo streams. Also flowing into Lake Otamangakau is water from the Upper Wanganui River and the Otamangakau stream. Total mean flow from all these streams is about 5 cumecs.

The water then goes via the Wairehu canal to Lake Rotoaira, which then is combined with the water from the eastern diversion (Tongariro River). This water then flows through a tunnel to the Tokaanu power station to generate electricity (240MW) before joining Lake Taupo. The water from the western diversion, then provides extra water for the many hydro stations on the Waikato River, the outlet from Lake Taupo.

The Whakapapa River has a mean annual flow of 15.3 cumecs at the intake and the intake has a maximum flood capacity of 40 cumecs. The minimum flow downstream from the intake is 3.0 cumecs. This means that unless it's raining, there usually isn't enough water to paddle the 23 km stretch from the intake to Owhango.

On the day of the release you will not know the exact amount of natural flow until after 9:00 am because the flow in the Wairehu canal is not solely dependant on the flow in the tunnel. You should ring the Genesis Energy flow-phone 07 386 8113 and press 1 then 2, for the flow below the Whakapapa Intake. Note: there is no mobile coverage at the put-in so ring the flow-phone before turning off the Turangi/National Park road.

For a decent flow on the day, rain is needed (usually from the west or north), and you can check out the forecast for Tongariro National Park at

Don't miss the next release on Saturday 23 July when Genesis Energy will close the intake to provide natural flow, if it's greater than 16 cumecs. If not, then the release is postponed to the Sunday. If it doesn't work out on the Sunday, then the release will be cancelled.

Don't forget your thermos, dry top, pogies and skull cap.

If the river is in flood or if there is a lot of rain around on the day, be aware that flows can rise extremely quickly. The river is III+ at 30 cumecs, but at 100 cumecs turns into a raging monster (which is great fun), according to Graham Charles.


Egarr G.D. and J.H. 1981, New Zealand Recreational River Survey PART I Methods and Conclusions.

Genesis Power Limited, July 2000, Tongariro Power Development, Resource Consent Applications and Assessment of Environmental Effects.

Graham Charles, 2002, NZ Whitewater (revised edition).

Jarrod Bowler, Genesis Energy 19 June 2005. Letter to Paul Green, DoC, cc NZRCA. Re Timing of Recreational Flow Releases on Tongariro River and Whakapapa River (Resource Consents 101282 and 103875)